There was once a time in sports fandom – a simpler time, some would say – where fans didn’t know what every player earned. They watched the games, followed their stats, and rooted for the guys they liked best. This is not so much the case anymore, especially when it comes to “serious” sports fans.
Today, every player is viewed through the lens of his contract, which is not entirely unjustified. The NHL is a league with a salary cap, which means that overpaying one guy limits you from being able to pay someone else more money, meaning you end up with less talented fill-in guys. That makes your team worse, so…overpayments bad, underpayments good. Pretty simple.
But man, has it become blinding, to the point where fans take players earnings personally, and wind up comparing guys based on relative value instead of true contribution.
They’ll boo Scott Gomez when they feel they aren’t getting good bang for their buck, they’ll mock Rick DiPietro mercilessly, and they’ll even bemoan the stats of a guy like Brad Richards (in fairness, DiPietro was generally bad, but you get the point). This is not what We, the collective We as fans and part of this organization, paid you to do, Brad. Along the same vein, there are contract superstars. Mediocre output on a low salary? Value!
The obsession with that much-vaunted word is messing with perception to where it doesn’t accurately reflect reality.
Here’s the thing: a guy under-performing on his contract is not necessarily less valuable than somebody over-performing theirs. It’s okay to occasionally skirt contribution-to-salary ratio in favor of just the first word. All things are equal on the ice.
Tuomu Ruutu just got dealt to the New Jersey Devils, and the talk centered around NJ taking on his probably-too-large salary despite the Devils not being a max-cap team. The guy’s a nice hockey player, and fans were torching New Jersey (online, anyway). You have to remember, for teams that aren’t near the cap and feel like spending, what a guy earns is irrelevant. New Jersey’s hockey team got better, so let them worry about paying their own bills.
Meanwhile, above-average guys like Ales Hemsky are largely shrugged off because “$5.5 mill? Not on my team.” How on earth can a hockey fan just watching hockey see Hemsky play and think “No thanks” even if their team can foot the bill and has the need?
For fans of teams that do max out the salary cap the endless fretting about cost makes a lot more sense, but there’s still this obsession with value that would see fans build some of the worst hockey teams known to man. If some of them had their say they’d have a top line of Clarke MacArthur-Andrew Shaw-Justin Williams, and that team would get torched by a team that realizes, while value is handy, you gotta pay for some big guns to compete in the big leagues.
You gotta pay Weber and Chara, you gotta pay Stamkos and Hossa, you gotta have guys like Rick Nash. And while the value crowd is laughing at that last name (under-performing his money), I’ll take a team with Rick Nash over one with those value names above because he’s better at hockey. This isn’t the stock market, and the goal isn’t to prove you’re smarter than the next guy, the goal is to get as many good players on your team as possible. If that means aiming a firehose full of hundred-dollar bills at top talent and then trying to fill in your blanks, you do it because you need the first part to win.
Not many of us are seeing money back when our team churns out mid-level performance on the cheap, so it’s a bizarre thing to root for. While successful teams undeniably have some value guys, they almost always have a highly paid core as well, which is why Pittsburgh is always a Cup threat, while the Phoenix Coyotes – who feast on pure value – never really have a legit shot at it. History has given us the odd fairy tale story of value-stacked-on-value winning, but it’s always that – a fairy tale. It’s so rare that when it happens it becomes fodder for movie scripts.
Value is awesome, and you need it to succeed once you have those big names. Having it allows you to go after them. But “value” has been fetishized in sport to the point where we forget what good is, we heap scorn on teams that pay for ability, and we forget why we came to cherish value players so much in the first place.
It’s great because it let’s you buy what actually helps you win. Value players are great, but don’t lose sight of why they’re important.